The Philosophy Program at A&M University - Corpus Christi offers the Minor (18 hrs.) and the Major (30 hrs.) in Philosophy. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you have any questions about studying philosophy.

On Gun Rights

Courtesy Leiter Reports, Jeff McMahon (Oxford) explores an argument against gun rights on Oxford's "Practical Ethics" site. From the essay's lede,

On this day in the US, around thirty people will be killed with a gun, not including suicides. Many more will be wounded. I can safely predict this number because that is the average number of homicides committed with a gun in the US each day. Such killings have become so routine that they are barely noticed even in the local news. Only when a significant number of people are murdered, particularly when they include children or are killed randomly, is the event considered newsworthy.

Yet efforts to regulate the possession of guns in the US are consistently defeated.

The online discussion following McMahon's essay is vigorous, to say the least.

Is It Not Merely Mistaken But Also Morally Repugnant to Believe in God?

In a provocative Times essay, Michael Ruse (FSU) argues that believing in the existence of a God that doesn't happen to exist is not an epistemic error per se so much as it is a moral one. From the essay,

When asked in Ireland a few years ago about the abuse of children by priests, Richard Dawkins — who, along with Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, is among the best known of the New Atheists — responded that he was more concerned about bringing a child up Catholic in the first place. You don’t say something like that seriously — and Dawkins is always serious — without a deep sense that something is dreadfully morally wrong. The whole system is rotten, this stance shouts, and corrupting to the core.

...What is truly striking is that atheists of Dawkins’s stripe don’t just say that believing in God is an intellectual mistake. They also claim that it’s morally wrong to believe in the existence of God or gods.

You might think there is something a little funny here. The basic question is not about religion in all its diversity and complexity. It’s about whether God exists. Either God (let us stay for convenience with one God, the God of theism) exists or God does not exist. Belief in God, seen this way, is not a moral matter. Whether two plus two equals four is not a moral question: It does. You should believe it. End of argument. Same with God.

...The biologist J. B. S. Haldane said: “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Perhaps so and I would not be surprised if a lot of people go along with this. That, however, is no reason to believe in Christianity or Judaism or any of the other religions. Even more, it seems morally repugnant to accept — if not rejoice in — living in a world ruled by the God of religions.

This is what motivated nonbelievers down through the ages. It is what motivated John Stuart Mill to say, when he rejected the Christian doctrine of a good God: “I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures; and if such a creature can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.”

The Ethics of Torture

In advance of this Friday's talk at Texas A&M-Kingsville by Dr. Eve Browning on the Ethics of Torture, consider a recent discussion on the topic between Gary Gutting and Jeff McMahan in the NY Times' Stone series. 

It's All Just a Matter of Opinion

The NY Times has an article exploring a reason why the proposition that there are moral facts faces an uphill battle in non-philosophical circles. From the article,

What I didn’t know was where this attitude came from. Given the presence of moral relativism in some academic circles, some people might naturally assume that philosophers themselves are to blame. But they aren’t. There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare. Besides, if students are already showing up to college with this view of morality, it’s very unlikely that it’s the result of what professional philosophers are teaching. So where is the view coming from?

Passing as Human

What have we to fear from Artificial Intelligence? It may be much, but not what we expect, or so an article in the NY Times Stone series argues. From the article,

The idea of measuring A.I. by its ability to “pass” as a human – dramatized in countless sci-fi films, from Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” to Spike Jonze’s “Her” – is actually as old as modern A.I. research itself. It is traceable at least to 1950 when the British mathematician Alan Turing published “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” a paper in which he described what we now call the “Turing Test,” and which he referred to as the “imitation game.” There are different versions of the test, all of which are revealing as to why our approach to the culture and ethics of A.I. is what it is, for good and bad. For the most familiar version, a human interrogator asks questions of two hidden contestants, one a human and the other a computer. Turing suggests that if the interrogator usually cannot tell which is which, and if the computer can successfully pass as human, then can we not conclude, for practical purposes, that the computer is “intelligent”?

More people “know” Turing’s foundational text than have actually read it. This is unfortunate because the text is marvelous, strange and surprising. Turing introduces his test as a variation on a popular parlor game in which two hidden contestants, a woman (player A) and a man (player B) try to convince a third that he or she is a woman by their written responses to leading questions. To win, one of the players must convincingly be who they really are, whereas the other must try to pass as another gender. Turing describes his own variation as one where “a computer takes the place of player A,” and so a literal reading would suggest that in his version the computer is not just pretending to be a human, but pretending to be a woman. It must pass as a she.

Other versions had it that player B could be either a man or a woman. It would seem a very different kind of game if only one player is faking, or if both are, or if neither of them are. Now that we give the computer a seat, we may have it pretending to be a woman along with a man pretending to be a woman, both trying to trick the interrogator into figuring out which is a man and which is a woman. Or perhaps a computer pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman, along with a man pretending to be a woman, or even a computer pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman! In the real world, of course, we already have all of the above.

“The Imitation Game,” Morten Tyldum’s Oscar-winning 2014 film about Turing, reminds us that the mathematician himself also had to “pass” — in his case as straight man in a society that criminalized homosexuality. Upon discovery that he was not what he appeared to be, he was forced to undergo horrific medical treatments known as “chemical castration.” Ultimately the physical and emotional pain was too great and he committed suicide. The episode was grotesque tribute to a man whose contribution to defeating Hitler’s military was still at that time a state secret. Turing was only recently given posthumous pardon, but the tens of thousands of other British men sentenced under similar laws have not.

Deep Learning

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education tells the story of Geoffrey Hinton, a computer scientist behind the neural nets whose applications we increasingly enjoy. From the article,

As a teenager, Hinton became fascinated with computers and brains. He could build electrical relays out of razor blades, six-inch nails, and copper wire in 10 minutes; give him an hour, and he’d give you an oscillator.

His view then was the same he has today: "If you want to understand how the mind works, ignoring the brain is probably a bad idea." Using a computer to build simple models to see if they worked—that seemed the obvious method. "And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since."

This was not an obvious view. He was the only person pursuing neural nets in his department at Edinburgh. It was hard going. "You seem to be intelligent," people told him. "Why are you doing this stuff?"

Hinton had to work in secret. His thesis couldn’t focus on learning in neural nets; it had to be on whether a computer could infer parts, like a human leg, in a picture. His first paper on neural nets wouldn’t pass peer review if it mentioned "neural nets"; it had to talk about "optimal networks." After he graduated, he couldn’t find full-time academic work. But slowly, starting with a 1979 conference he organized, he found his people.

"We both had this belief," says Terrence J. Sejnowski, a computational neurobiologist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and longtime Hinton collaborator. "It was a blind belief. We couldn’t prove anything, mathematical or otherwise." But as they saw rules-based AI struggle with things like vision, they knew they had an ace up their sleeve, Sejnowski adds. "The only working system that could solve these problems was the brain."

Bot Authors

ETS (the Educational Testing Service) has for years relied on computers to 'grade' essay portions of the GRE, whereby syntactic or surface features are used as indicators of content. Increasingly, though, journalism is relying on computers that write essays, as an article in the Times Sunday Review--one possibly written by a human--describes.

Indeed, given snippets of text, can you distinguish between human and computer authorship? Take a quiz to find out!

The Hard Problem

The Guardian has an excellent article explaining the hard problem of phenomenal consciousness. Those new to what is arguably the most vexing puzzle in science today would do well to start with this introduction.

What Shouldn't An Architect Build?

An article in the NY Times discusses a petition, recently rejected by the American Institute of Architects, that Architects' code of conduct ban designing execution rooms. From the article,

I asked if the institute has issued any position or policy statement about death chambers.

“No,” she said. “If we begin to stipulate the types of projects our members can and cannot do, it opens a can of worms.”

I imagined that she was talking about other politically fraught buildings, like, say, nuclear power plants or abortion clinics. Mr. Sperry said there was a difference with death chambers. International human-rights treaties don’t explicitly prohibit abortion or nuclear power, as they do execution and torture. The United Nations and other international human-rights organizations consider the death penalty a violation of human rights.

“Is there nothing so odious that the A.I.A. wouldn’t step in?” he asked. “What about concentration camps? The A.I.A. is basically saying business is more important than human rights. Yes, this is a tough profession. But you don’t gain respect by hunkering down in a position of fear. You just dig yourself deeper into a hole.”

On Philosophy, Mathematics, and Science

3:am Magazine has a terrific interview with Penelope Maddy (distinguished Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science and of Mathematics at the University of California, Irvine) on naturalism and the enthralling intersection of philosophy, math, and science.

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